A foolproof answer for “So Tell Me About Yourself”

I got a call the other day from a friend who made it to the final round for a big job: “You’re never going to believe the question I blew during my interview, Katherine...”  

My spidey sense was that I would believe it and already knew, but I asked curiously, “What was it?” 

With a whimper she said, “Ugh. Tell us about yourself.”  

My friend is more than strong and capable enough for this job. She was well-prepared for this interview. She doesn’t have a problem following directions. The challenge is, of course she wanted to tell them something that would ‘wow’ them, was really engaging, made sense, that would actually help them “get” her.  

But how much should she share? How long should she go on? Will she bore them? What’s T.M.I.? 

Yeah, she got anxious. She wanted to make a great impression; she didn’t know what to say.  

The problem with “Tell us about yourself” is that there’s SO much to tell, we don’t even know where to begin! 

We commiserated. As her friend, I was about to say “It wasn’t meant to be.” But the coach in me asked gently: “Do you want my two cents now on how you might answer that question next time?” 

Everything to you need to tell your story is already inside of you. 

When we’re tasked with telling someone “About Ourselves” it’s so tempting to jump straight to a career & expertise timeline: where you went to school, what your first job was, what your job is now, blah blah blah.  Sure. That’s a list of places you turned up. But it doesn’t give us a peek inside. 

What’s revealing, surprising and interesting is to start earlier. Start with your upbringing. Your family. Your role in the family. Zero in on a moment that you felt something, thought something or discovered something important. Give someone a chance to actually stand in your shoes for a couple of nano-seconds. They want to know About You? Let them feel what it’s like to Be You. 

Here’s my Go-To Formula to answer “Tell us about Yourself”:

1: Start with a glimpse into your upbringing. Introduce them to some information that they won’t find in your resume. Illuminate what you might think is basic.

2: Zoom in on a moment, feeling or aspiration you had growing up. Let them feel what you felt for a second. Share what it was like to move, think and imagine like you.

3: Wrap up with an insight. Share a revelation; show that this small moment is still part of you and you still carry it with you. And that you’re happy to share the gift of this insight with them. 

Here’s how my friend could have answered that question:

“I grew up on the East Coast. My parents divorced when I was in 3rd grade. Instead of living with my mom, I ended up living with my dad on a boarding school campus where he was a beloved teacher for over 30 years. I remember skipping around school knowing everyone’s names and feeling so loved and accepted. I always wanted to go in to teaching because I loved being around kids and people. I still do. And while I believe deeply in the power of education, I think what really drives me is the belief in the power of community, regardless of your background or circumstances.” 

Here's how I worked through the formula with a different client:

“My parents were both artists and I was raised here in San Francisco. They divorced when I was five but worked together to raise me and my younger sister. I always assumed I would go into a career in the arts, like my parents. I took creative writing classes in college but really adored my part-time job as a nanny. I realized I wanted to work with kids. Later jobs as a hostess and barista reinforced how much I love interacting with and taking care of people. Becoming an artist felt to me like it would be too isolating and lonely. I went back to school at San Francisco State and Dominican to become a pediatric nurse. It’s been a long road but I’m so grateful I was able to pinpoint what I really love to do, and I’m so ready to sink my teeth into this profession.” 

And here’s how I would answer that question:

“I grew up the youngest of four in a catholic family in Pittsburgh. It was the 70’s – you know, the heyday of the Steelers. My dad was a gifted storyteller and we were raised on stories of optimism, hard work and gratitude. I wanted to be seen as a good girl, and I pretended everything was okay even when it wasn’t. When I was in fourth grade, I got detention for kicking the wall in Sister Libbon’s coat closet, just like the popular girl did. But she never got caught! My mom picked me up after school and I cried the whole way home. It was one of my first experiences with great big emotions, bottling them up, and paying the price. The work I do coaching people to communicate with authenticity and confidence is deep, connecting and rewarding. I absolutely love seeing others share their true selves with pride and poise.” 

What do you think? TMI? Boring? Yeah, I don’t think so either.  

You’ll get to talk about all that other stuff — school, jobs, how you handle challenges at work etc. throughout the course of the interview—or conversation. But the things that happen to you outside your resume, how your talk about yourself and your upbringing and connect it to why you’re passionate about what you’ve chosen to do and how you’ve chosen to live… that’s what builds trust, makes you interesting, and reveals your values and aspirations. 

There are a million moments like these you could choose to share.  

The fact that I cried the whole way home from detention, that I was a pleaser, kind, loving, wanted to be a good girl and couldn’t totally express myself... how does that affect what I do and believe today? I could have picked from a thousand moments that influenced my path. Trust that the example or anecdote you choose says what it needs to say about you for someone to better understand you. Find your example and then don’t over think it.  

One last AHA: blame vs insight.  

Sometimes I get asked “Well, if I say this happened and then this etc… It feels like I’m blaming someone for how I feel or why my life went a certain way.” 

Telling your story isn’t about blaming people or parts of your past. It’s a forward-moving, forward-thinking activity that allows you to reflect on your past. Notice and express something important about yourself and your world. It’s about connecting the dots and sharing an insight into who you are and why. 

Insight allows us to empathize with others—and sometimes even forgive them and ourselves. Insight allows you to take new lessons and energy… forward. Those insights make us who we are. And what better way to tell someone About Yourself than to explain how you got that way. 

Next month I’m going to tackle another “harmless” question: “So, what do you do?” Ugh. I’ll show you one way to answer this without mentioning what you do. Stay tuned!

jessica bonin